modified Nikon F3 small camera
This camera is referred
to as a Nikon F3 'small' camera. It is called such in that it was capable
of holding a maximum of 72 frames per film. The 'Big Camera' has a specially
designed film back which was capable of holding 250 frames
camera (serial number 1024), is part of my personal collection, and
has been noted by NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX as
having been used on three Shuttle Missions:
This was the third flight of the shuttle Atlantis and carried a classified
payload for the Department of Defense.
The mission lasted from December 2-8, 1988
This mission carried the SpaceLab module for the SpaceLab Sciences
1 mission, which was the first mission dedicated solely to biology
The mission was flown on Columbia and lasted from June 5-14, 1991
This mission was flown on the Shuttle Discovery and carried the SpaceLab
The mission lasted from January 22-30, 1992 and included Canada's first
female astronaut, Roberta Bondar
makes a NASA modified F3 small camera different than a regular consumer
Well some changes are obvious and others are much less so.
Here is what I learned
in doing a 1:1 comparison to a consumer F3 model:
The NASA modified
has no leatherette skin that is normally found on the consumer
Instead the body is completely matte black. The leatherette material
was removed because of issues with out-gassing of materials such
as plastic and glue.
is a very important issue in a closed vehicle or on an EVA where
out-gassing can get on delicate objects.
depth of field preview button is black on the NASA
modified and silver on the consumer F3
levers for the Mirror lock up and Mechanical Shutter
release are longer on the NASA modified, compared to
the consumer F3
release button is black on the NASA modified and silver
on the consumer F3
self timer LED on the NASA modified doesnt appear on the body
but instead appears on the drive itself, just to the lower
right of the lens. This modification in particular was considered
the -303 mod and cameras that were equipped with it have the -303
appended to the SED Part Number engraving. Cameras with the -301 extension
do not have a self timer.
A multi pin outlet for a remote device such as an intervalometer,
is found on the lower right hand side of the front of the NASA modified.
A Bendix metal cap/plug with a tether covers the electronics to keep
a tight seal and prevent any dirt from getting inside
at the top of the camera
of the body is about 5mm wider than the consumer model
film counter on the top of the camera winds to 72
From what I understand, Kodak was contracted to develop a thinner
emulsion film that was able to hold 72 35mm images from a standard
cassette magazine this helped to minimize film changes.
The F3 Small Camera utilized the 72 exposure rolls.
F3 small camera also features an enBigd bubble magnification
window for the film counter.
The window was most likely improved to support EVA (extra vehicular
activities; or use outside of the Shuttle such as on spacewalks)
release button on the shutter speed dial is silver on the consumer
F3 and black and slightly smaller on the NASA modified
center of the film advance lever is silver on the consumer F3 and
black on the NASA modified
typeface is Bigr on the Motor Drive controller (Continuous/Single/Off)
on the NASA modified
There is no power switch on the advance lever of the NASA
modified like there is on the consumer F3
The camera derives its power from the insertion of the battery pack
into the drive.
There is no multiple exposure lever on the NASA modified
That would stand to reason as I doubt the astronauts would be doing
special effect creative shots.
There is no film plane indicator mark on the top of the NASA
compensator button is black on the NASA modified and
silver on the consumer F3
The ASA/ISO dial increments differ on the NASA modified.
Both go from 12-6400, but
The NASA modified displays: 12,25,64,100,160,320,500,1000,2000,4000,6400
The Consumer F3 displays: 12,25,64,100,200,400,800,1600,3200,6400
This likely points to special emulsions that were commissioned
from manufacturers like Kodak to produce along with the 72 exposure
no Self Timer switch on F3 Small cameras that have a -301 extension
on their engraved part number. There is a Self Timer switch
on the -303 F3 small cameras.
of the F3 small camera seems to have two, possibly three different
versions. The one depicted on this camera being profiled (the
-303 extension) is a DE-3 type High Eyepoint finder, like the
consumer version however with NASA PN and SN engravings on the
I also have an earlier NASA F3 small camera which carries a
'-301' extension. On this version. the model has a hybrid between
a DE-2 and a DE-5 type finder. The finder itself has the smaller
viewing area, like the DE-2 finder, but with a few differences:
the finder has an ISO type hot shoe with three prongs installed;
similar to the DE-5. The DE-5 however featured the High Eyepoint
finder with the hot shoe.
- Secondly, the
finder has a Shutter curtain in the viewfinder like the commercial
DE-2 finder, to prevent extranneous light from entering the camera
through the finder if photographs were taken unmanned (such as with
an intervalometer). The difference is that the lever for controlling
it is mounted upside down compared to the commercial DE-2 version.
I suspect it is because the lever sticks out from the finder on the
commercial version and therefore could be easily broken off. Mounting
it upside down however would keep it flush with the finder housing.
The NASA Modified -301 version also has two microscopic screws in
the center of the lever, which are not on the DE-2 version. The DE-5
finder does not have this viewfinder shutter lever.
the finder's engravings itself have the engraving SED33101572-003
which is the same as the F3 'Big' camera's finder which was
a regular DE-2 type finder with no hot shoe installed.
This is a bit of an anomaly, since NASA's part numbers usually
differ if the part had a modification.
to blueprints I saw of an F3 small camera, they depicted the camera
body with an installed hot shoe, but also had it circled and identified
as a '-304' version only.
I suspect the -304 version would be an HP finder, likely more
akin to the commercial DE-5 type.
the Mirror Box
Box inside the -301 models of the F3 small camera look identical
to the mirror box of the consumer version.
will find the standard focus screen support frame and spacers,
as well as an interchangeable focusing screen.
screen used in all the F3 small cameras that I have inspected
all appear to be a Type P screen.
The screen is divided into 4 equal quadrants with a center weighted
area-sized circle in the center and a smaller focusing circle
in the middle of that. This centre circle has a diagonal split
screen. The rest is clear.
the sample screen shown here: the Focusing Screen frame includes
NASA's serial number (S/N) and NASA part number (P/N) - this
example has the P/N on the opposite end of the frame. There
is some variance to the engravings however as I have seen screens
where the S/N and P/N appear on the long sides of the frame
as opposed to the short ends like this one.
research I found that image quality from the earliest photographs
that astronauts took in space were not the best. This was
not really a fault of the equipment, but more of a lack of
skill as a photographer on behalf of the astronaut. Problems
were usually due to the subject having a poor exposure or
that the image was out of focus.
that NASA and Nikon were collaborating on addressing this
issue. First with the 'A' mode of the F3, so that the camera
could control the shutter speed based on the aperture that
was set to help to improve the accuracy of the exposures,
and secondly by working towards a camera that could focus
characteristic of all of the -303 versions of the F3 Small
Cameras I have found, is that the mirror box contains electronics
similar to those found on the F3AF which was released to the
public in 1983, some two years after the F3 Small Camera first
took flight with NASA.
a startling find as it shows that Nikon and NASA were working
on an autofocus solution for space in the early 1980s.
However, with the mirror box configured as shown here, the
support frame and spacers for the focusing screen support
frame prohibit proper electrical contact to a DX-1 Auto Focus
finder if one were installed.
Auto Focus Finder is unique in that it not only passes signals
to a specially equipped Nikkor auto focus lens, but it also
incorporates a built-in focusing screen, therefore it does
not require the support frame in the mirror box.
if you remove the support frame and its subsequent spacers,
a DX-1 Auto Focus finder fits perfectly on the NASA F3 Small
Camera body. Further attach a consumer 80MM AF Nikkor F2.8S
and magic happens:
reto-fitting of the F3AF mirror box into the -303 NASA F3
Small Cameras imply that Nikon and NASA were planting the
seeds of trying to adapt Nikon's new auto focus capability
into the space cameras as early as perhaps 1983 - a good 5
years before it would be actually realized with the F4.
at the bottom of the camera
base of the NASA modified F3 small camera will often have a grooved
'quick release' style plate installed.
Like an Arca Swiss type of mount, these were used by a number of devices
for installation on fixed mounting systems around the spacecraft and
likely on the EVA mounts for spacewalks.
There is also a standard tripod 1/4-20 thread in the plate
Sides of the camera
The NASA modified
has no neckstrap eyelets
The reason being is that neckstraps are not used in a zero Gravity
On the side
of the NASA modified's integrated motor drive lay a battery check
test button with green and red indicator lamps.
on my -301 version of the F3 Small Camera, there is no '.'
engraved after BATT,
however on all the -303 versions I have seen, this dot appears.
drive runs on a specially designed battery pack made of all
metal. Like the MD-4 motor drive of the consumer F3, the NASA
Modified runs on eight standard AA batteries. The NASA model's
batteries fit in the all-metal pack and connection is made through
heavy duty springs and gold connectors. Four screws on the battery
pack end ensure connection is tight and the batteries do not move.
pack inserts in to the opposite side of the NASA modified, and
locks into place. A retractable switch allows for the pack to
be easily ejected.
of the battery packs I have inspected, I have noticed that most
show evidence of past battery rupture inside with a white powder
basically 'baked' into the metal
F3 model can operate the camera electronics with two 1.5V button
cells. The NASA modified has an integrated motor drive however,
so there is no need for button cells since the camera will need
the power of 8 AAs to operate.
illuminator button on the consumer F3 is red, while it is black
on the NASA modified
The button remains the same size as the consumer model so there was
likely no intention to use the button for EVA
Another small observed difference can be noted on this side between
the -301 and -303 versions of the cameras:
The F3 small camera
and some of its accessories, like data backs, body and lens caps,
usually have velcro tabs attached.
Back in the 80s
and early 90s when the F3s were the main cameras, pretty well all
the velcro tabs were blue. Today, the velcro used often consist of
3 primary colours: Blue is found on most hardware used in the main
cabin. Yellow is also found in the cabin but is gear preferred by
the crew and EVA gear often has white velcro. Velcro was usually white
in the 70s eras when the Nikon F was in use
The main purpose
of the velcro is to hold the camera or accessory on a panel or attached
point in zero Gravity.
The Rear of
The advance lever
handle is taller on the NASA modified and notched on the
NASA modified has Nikon engraved on the rear to the left
of the finder. Consumer F3s are to the right, followed by the Nikon
NASA modified Motor Drive has a counter in the center that, like
the modified counter on the camera top, numbers to 72 exposures.
rear of the Motor Drive usually features two 'cue card' decals for
certain common tasks.
NASA Modified F3 Small Camera, like the consumer F3 model, can take
a number of different 'backs' (doors). While the consumer versions choices
are much more varied than the NASA version, there were still 3 different
backs Ihave seen that were in use for this camera type in Space.
above is a standard, regular back - similar to the consumer back on
the inside, but with the lack of leatherette on the outside. The camera
profiled on this page also shows a white area inside the film index
slot. This is usually all black on the consumer version and it is uncertain
what the significance was to the NASA version
the regular back you would usually find the NASA part and serial numbers.
Note that on this particular example, the pressure plate has been removed
suggesting that this back was likely just a placeholder to protect the
shutter curtains, when a data back was not in place.
back pictured above is an MF-14 digital back. Similar in look and function
to the consumer MF-14, with some NASA additions. The rear of the NASA
modified version will include either a decal with the back's NASA's
Part Number and Serial Number or, in some early versions of this back,
the NASA part and serial numbers would be printed directly on the back,
in the section where the LCD resides, but in the lower left corner.
This location for the PN and SN did not last long when NASA decided
to apply a 'cue card' decal with Astronaut instructions on how to
operate the back, so the Part and Serial numbers were then changed to
the decal and placed to the left as seen in the sample above. Many backs
would also have a velcro patch applied, directly over the door to where
the battery compartment is.
MF-14 enabled the Astronauts to imprint data in the lower right corner
of the images. Astronauts were provided the same options as in the consumer
the Year, Month, Day in the format YY MM DD
- Imprint the Day,
Hour, Minute in the format DD HH:MM or
- Imprint the Frame
# (the Consumer version stated this option was for any reference number
up to 2000)
NASA also used
another variation of the data back, the MF-18. Like the MF-14 before
it, the MF-18 functioned similar to the consumer version, but NASA
catalogued the back with its own part number and series of NASA serial
numbers. Once again, decals for these numbers were applied on the
left side of the back and a 'cue card' decal was on the center
of the back. The velcro patch once again would normally appear on
the battery compartment cover.
The MF-18 afforded
the same imprinting of data as the MF-14, however the MF-18 printed
the data between frames instead of in the image area.
the consumer version however, the NASA modified MF-18 does not have
the extension on the right side of the back as well as the additional
roller to prevent the film leader from being rewound completely into
the film cassette during auto rewind.
were used as EVA units. This meant that they were able to perform
extra vehicular activities, meaning they could likely
be used outside the craft in the vacuum of space. Special internal
parts and/or adhesives/lubricants were built into those units
to be able to withstand extreme temperatures. These EVA modified
models would carry an EVA sticker on the rear. Others were designated
AEC cameras and were usually fixed at a window or the
like and were mostly set for Automatic Exposure Control (aperture
priority), and very likely with intervalometers. According to
the NASA label on this body, this particular one was an AEC
HERE to learn more about the EVA Modifications for the F3
Small Camera (COMING SOON)
the P/N and S/N
All of the F3 small camera bodies have the NASA Part Number
(P/N) and Serial Number (S/N) engraved on the front of the camera
at the bottom of the integrated motor drive. The P/N number
was NASA's way of identifying their pieces destined for use
in the space program. You will notice that the part number begins
with the letters SED. 'S' always appears first for NASA's part
numbers. The 'E' means that the piece was produced from the
Engineering Diagrams. The 'D' is what NASA categorizes part
of the Space Shuttle program. You may see other NASA parts that
have a Part Number starting with 'SEA'; those refer to the Gemini
program. 'SEB' is for the Apollo program, and 'SEC' is for Skylab
Number that follows the Alpha characters is NASA's unique 8 digit
part number for the particular piece. There are usually another
3 digits that follow separated by a dash. This refers to the variation
of the particular part. The variation number on major parts, such
as the camera above, usually starts with 301.
'3' I believe refers to the 'entire' part, which is the camera,
including all of its basic removable components, such as the finder,
the focusing screen, the battery pack, the instructional decals,
the velcro and the body cap. Each individual component would often
share the same part number, but their variant number would usually
start with a '0' instead of a '3'
To try to
illustrate this, the camera depicted on this page is SED-33101585-303.
That is the number for the entire unit with all its installed
The camera's back door is a removable component, since there
are variations of a door that could be used (learn more below).
A regular back door would carry the same SED number but with
a different extension, in this case SED33101585-002
small 'cue card decal' on the rear left of the camera is also
considered a component, in this case, identified internally by
NASA as SED33101585-005
The Bigr 'cue card decal' on the rear right of the camera
is identified internally by NASA as SED33101585-006
The DE-3 type High Eyepoint finder this camera is equipped with
is yet another component, engraved with SED33101585-007
Even the Velcro patches were identified internally by NASA with
specific part numbers, such as the small square patch located
just above the battery compartment which is SED33101585-008
The last two
numbers I believe, indicate the variant level. As such, '01' indicates
it is the first variation of that particular part. In the case
of the F3 Small Camera, the -301
variation, had a regular DE-2 Type Finder, but with a hot shoe
installed on it. When a major modification was made to the camera
where the variant was changed, the camera's SED would reflect
the change and show '-302'.
Subsequent modification done after that would change the variant
to '-303' and so on. The example
seen here, is a -303 variant.
Number is NASA's serial number for the piece. Many of the Nikon
pieces from the F and F3 era do not have Nikon serial numbers
on them Instead, Nikon engraved the camera bodies with the NASA
P/N and often just the the first two digits of the NASA Serial
Number (almost always beginning with a '10', unless there were
more than 100 pieces produced, where the serial number may extend
to '11'. This enabled NASA to likely finish the engraving once
they determined the Serial Number and the Variant Number for the
piece. I have yet to see a NASA serial number greater than 4 digits
long. There is a possibility that for some pieces NASA had Nikon
engraved all numbers completely, but it has been difficult to
determine. Later pieces after the F3 era opted for using decals
instead of engravings.
to my NASA Nikon pages:
HERE to learn about the NASA Modified Nikon F with Motor Drive
HERE to learn about the NASA F3 Small Camera
SOON - learn about the NASA F3 Small Camera's EVA Modifications
HERE to learn about my NASA F3 'Big' Camera with the removable
250 Exposure Magazine back
HERE to learn about the NASA F4 Electronic Still Camera
HERE to learn about the NASA Nikon HERCULES system
SOON - learn about my NASA F4S Camera
HERE - learn about my NASA F5 IVA and EVA Cameras
HERE to learn about my NASA DCS460C Digital Camera used on the
1st and 2nd expeditions at the International Space Station. This one captured
shots of the Space Shuttle above earth and even shots of the Space Station
itself from the Soyuz Russian spacecraft
HERE to learn about the NASA DCS460C Digital Camera used on the
2nd and 3rd expeditions at the International Space Station. This one captured
the aftermath in New York City on 9/11
HERE to learn about the NASA Kodak DCS760C Electronic Still
SOON - learn about the NASA Modified Nikon Nikkor Manual Focus
HERE for the NASA Nikon Serial Number Database; a never ending
work in progress to record all the film-based and early digital Nikon
gear used in the Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle eras and the early days of
the International Space Station
Research and Photo
Johnson Space Center, Houston TX
United Space Alliance
Space Center Houston
The Lens and
Peter Coeln - Westlicht
© 2010-2018 Timm J Chapman - www.timmchapman.com